WASHINGTON — Reports of thyroid cancer patients setting off radiation alarms and contaminating hotel rooms are prompting the agency in charge of nuclear safety to consider tighter rules.
A congressional investigation made public Wednesday found that patients sent home after treatment with radioactive iodine have contaminated unsuspecting hotel guests and set off alarms on public transportation.
They've come into close contact with vulnerable people, including pregnant women and children, and trash from their homes has triggered radiation detectors at landfills.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is considering new rules to address the problem, in particular curbs on sending patients to hotels after treatment, a spokesman said Wednesday.
"The assumption was that patients would be going home," said NRC spokesman David McIntyre. "Now that we see there are some who are not, we are developing new guidance." It's unclear whether the radiation exposure occurs at levels high enough to cause harm.
The agency is also looking to make sure that risks of exposing pregnant women and children are more clearly communicated to patients, McIntyre said, after a commission meeting on the issue.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., says the problem stems from a decision years ago by the NRC to ease requirements that thyroid cancer patients remain in the hospital a few days after swallowing doses of radioactive iodine to shrink their tumors.
About 40,000 people a year develop thyroid cancer, which generally responds well to treatment. Certain types are treated by swallowing radioactive iodine, or iodine-131. It concentrates in the thyroid, but small amounts are excreted through urine, saliva and sweat.
People given high doses may be kept in the hospital, but many patients are sent home with instructions on how to minimize exposure to others over the next few days. Most of the radiation is gone in about a week, says the National Cancer Institute's website for patients.
Traditionally such patients were kept in the hospital, but treatment has now shifted to less costly outpatient facilities. Patients sent home are supposed to follow specific precautions, such as sleeping alone in their beds and not giving hugs and kisses to young children. Markey's investigation indicates that's where the breakdown is occurring.